The man of steal

Charleston’s Jorge Mateo runs to first base for an infield single in a recent game at Riley Park. The RiverDogs’ 20-year-old shortstop has stolen 70 bases in 84 attempts this season. Mateo’s total is 18 more than the next-highest amount.

Professional baseball’s stolen base leader grins when asked if he has a number he’d like to swipe in 2015.

“I’d like to steal 1,000 if I could,” said Jorge Mateo, the Charleston RiverDogs’ 20-year-old shortstop. “If I get on base, I’m going to try to steal.”

Mateo has tried and succeeded with regularity this season. Through games played Sunday, the native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, leads all of baseball with 70 stolen bases, and it’s not close. Johneshwy Fargas of the Augusta GreenJackets ranks second with 52. Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton is Major League Baseball’s leader with 46 steals.

“Everybody always says you’re the fastest guy on the field,” said Mateo through a translator, his roommate Rainiero Coa, a RiverDogs catcher. “But that’s right. They’re right (laughing). The stolen bases can come whether you’re fast or not. You have to be smart. I watch the pitcher all the time.”

Pitchers are certainly watching Mateo, but it has done them little good. Mateo has been caught stealing just 14 times and is widely regarded as one of the fastest players in baseball. He took only 13.8 seconds to circle the bases from the right-handed batter’s box at Riley Park when he hit an inside-the-park home run in May.

Mateo was rated the No. 3 prospect in the New York Yankees’ system by Baseball America prior to the season, and he has lived up to that billing. He is batting .278 with 25 extra-base hits, 33 RBIs and 50 runs scored. Mateo is enjoying his best month at the plate in July, batting .329 with just nine strikeouts. The wiry, 6-0, 188-pounder had struck out at least 15 times in each of the season’s first three months.

Defensively, Mateo has committed 21 errors but shows solid range and an above-average throwing arm.

Travis Chapman managed Mateo with the Gulf Coast League Yankees in 2014 and now tutors him as the RiverDogs’ defense and baserunning coach. Chapman has been impressed by Mateo’s all-around progress in his first full season of professional baseball. Mateo signed with the Yankees for $250,000 at age 17, and had just 93 pro games under his belt prior to this year. He was limited to 15 games in 2014 after sustaining a broken wrist.

“He’s worked hard,” Chapman said. “We go back through and watch all of his stolen base attempts, whether it’s a stolen base, caught stealing or a pickoff. We talk a lot about pitcher’s time sets and try to put him in the best situation to be successful.”

Mateo’s speed is his greatest asset, and his eagerness to improve at the craft of base stealing is accentuating that strength. Chapman said Mateo often takes the initiative to review film on his own, and is intent on consistently evolving. As a coach, Chapman tries to instill a greater knowledge of the game in Mateo while simultaneously allowing his instincts and talent to take over.

“It’s a fine balancing point because you want them to really work and figure out what they can and can’t do,” Chapman said. “If you put restrictions on them — ‘hey, you can’t run on this guy because he’s really too fast for you’ — well then you never really find out if he can. It’s a fine balancing act between keeping him aggressive and under control.”

While his speed has always been a cut above, he is not — in his estimation — the fastest in the Mateo family. That distinction belongs to his uncle, Pedro Mejia, a former track star in the Dominican Republic who spent several years as a player in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system. He and Mateo’s father are well aware of Jorge’s standing as the top base stealer. Mateo is hoping to pile up plenty more stolen bases on a path that someday may lead him to the Bronx.

“I know I do (have the most stolen bases) and I’m happy for it,” Mateo said. “My dad is always letting me know about that. He’s happy for me because I’m working hard at it. If I’m stealing bases, it means I’m on base, so that’s a good thing.”